Canada·First Person

It took months for a doctor to take my symptoms seriously

After months of vocalizing her health concerns, Negin Nia’s symptoms were finally taken seriously and she had open-heart surgery. It opened her eyes to the challenges women face in the health-care system.

Was it because I was a woman or a person of colour? Or both?

A woman looks out of a window at nighttime. She is in a hospital room.

This First Person article is the experience of Negin Nia who lives in Vancouver. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was lying on a gurney in the hallway of the hospital basement. It was December 2020. B.C. was seeing hundreds of cases of COVID-19 daily and hospitalizations were also rising. I had a blue hospital gown and surgical mask on, and I waited anxiously to be wheeled into the room where my ultrasound would be done.

Although I was an otherwise healthy 22-year-old, I had a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse — a fancy way of saying one of my heart valves did not close properly. And just a few days ago, I had emergency open-heart surgery. 

My nurses had told me I was at the highest risk of infection in the days right after my operation, so the hospital was the last place I wanted to be. But I needed this scan to see the results of my surgery, and so I waited anxiously.

Finally, a masked nurse took me in. When the ultrasound technician walked into the room without a mask, I was shocked. B.C. was experiencing a surge of cases during the pandemic and I wondered if I should say something, but he quickly started the procedure. I kept quiet because of our power dynamic: he was the one in control of my procedure, and I could not even get off the gurney to walk away because I was so weak from the surgery.

He pressed the ultrasound device hard on my chest near my sternum, which had just been cracked open to do the open-heart surgery. When I told him it hurt, he rolled his eyes, as if I was exaggerating, and continued as I endured the pain.

I was angry and upset — post-surgery pain was enough, and now I had to experience unnecessary pain as well.

When I got back to my room, I called my mom and told her what had happened. She has always encouraged me to speak up for myself. So I worked up the courage and told a nurse who was taking care of me. She was shocked and said he should have been wearing PPE and respected me as a patient. 

Most of my health-care providers throughout this process have been amazing.

A hospital band with a patient’s personal information blurred for privacy, pills and open pill bottles are on a table.
Negin Nia’s hospital band and some of her heart medication after her surgery. (Negin Nia)

But, this one bad encounter reminded me there is a problem of pain dismissal in health care, especially for women of colour. Until that moment with the ultrasound technician, I hadn't thought about how factors like gender or race could impact the health care I would receive. 

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in women. However, because of the research gap on women's bodies, the male body is still the model for the common symptoms. The idea that women's medically unexplained symptoms can be attributed to things like stress and anxiety with no further diagnostic exploration is still common. For months before my diagnosis, I told multiple family doctors that my heart was beating abnormally fast — to the point where I could not sleep a minute at night. But, they told me it was my anxiety. 

Then I met with a specialist who finally took my health concerns seriously. If my cardiologist had not scheduled that MRI immediately, the problem might not have even been repairable. I was lucky, and I realize many women may be dealing with life-long complications because of constant misdiagnosis or dismissal. My experience made me stronger and it is the reason I  focused on health reporting in my master of journalism program. I also spent my last year of those studies creating an audio documentary on women's physical pain, race, and treatment to raise awareness.

A smiling woman in graduation robes and cap.
Negin Nia graduated with a master’s degree in journalism almost a year and a half after her open-heart surgery. (Submitted by Negin Nia)

I often found it hard to speak up for myself in health care scenarios because I felt previously dismissed as an overly dramatic hypochondriac. But the validation of other women who believed my health concerns, like my mom and nurse, helped me become a better advocate for myself. 

This is also not to say that all men dismiss women's health concerns. My cardiologist, surgeon, dad and other men in my life took my pain seriously too. But, it's important for male counterparts to support and believe women, people of colour, and non-binary people, who are disproportionately impacted in these situations.

Now, I go into every medical appointment with a list of what I need. If I had a chance to speak with that ultrasound technician again, I would tell him to believe me, because I should not have had to fight as hard trying to prove that my pain was real. No one should.

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Negin Nia

Associate Producer

Negin Nia is a multimedia journalist based in B.C. She currently works as an associate producer with current affairs at CBC Radio in Vancouver. Her stories cover the intersections of health, community and social change.